April 24, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Speed doesn’t take a day off.
Quayshawn Nealy hopes he never has to again, either. One season of watching, was enough for the speedy, 6-0, 220-pound redshirt freshman linebacker from Lakeland, Fla. (Lakeland HS).
Nealy showed what he could do right away in Saturday’s T-Day Game.
His jarring hit on the first play off a blitz was a precursor, as he had two tackles in the game’s first four plays then recovered an errant pitch from White quarterback Tevin Washington on the fifth play. Seven plays later, the Gold team was in the end zone and on its way to a 21-7 victory.
The initial hit, on B-Back Preston Lyons snapped Nealy out of some pre-game jitters.
“I was overwhelmed, just with the feeling of being out there,” he said. “I had jitters on the first snap, but after that, it’s pretty much, ‘You can play with these boys. Let’s go.'”
Nealy never stopped going, recording a Gold team- and game-high-tying eight tackles (seven solos), a sack, the fumble recovery and two pass break-ups, one of those directly resulting in Rashaad Reid’s interception of Washington.
It’s safe to say he got the coaches’ attention as much as he did the White team’s.
“Quayshawn’s another guy who’s talented,” said head coach Paul Johnson. “He ran around and did some things. He came on several blitzes and was elusive. The guy was trying to pick him up and he ran around him or dodged him. He can run to the ball. He’s athletic.”
That athleticism made Nealy attractive to plenty of schools, including Ole Miss., South Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Kansas, Louisville, Purdue and Tulane. He chose Georgia Tech and is hoping to use his skills to make a difference and earn playing time in an already loaded linebacker corps.
With projected starter junior Julian Burnett, the team’s leading tackler last season, and redshirt sophomore Daniel Drummond sitting out, Nealy knew the T-Day Game was the perfect opportunity to showcase his skills. He made the most of that opportunity.
“It was a great feeling to go out there and compete with other guys on the field,” he said. “Last year, sitting out, it was nothing like that. Coming from high school, playing all the time, I can’t have that expectation coming into college. I was ready to play. Going out and playing this spring game was a great feeling.”
Defensive coordinator Al Groh, while impressed with Nealy’s play, pointed out that getting Nealy to forget that he’s no longer in high school is an important next step in his progression.
“Quayshawn stepped up nicely today. He had a good spring. He can run, he’s got some skills, he has some playmaking ability,” Groh said. “What he’s got to learn is what lots of linebackers who can run have to learn. In high school, the skills that are necessary to recruit them in the first place usually enable them to kind of run away from blockers and play ‘kill the man with the ball.’
“They get to a little bit more sophisticated level, the schemes account for them better, the offensive blockers can get to spots quicker than the high school blockers could,” Groh continued. “They have to learn to take blocks on and defeat blocks. That’s been a process for him but he’s really bought into it, he’s increasingly done better with it and seemed to have some success with it today.”
Nealy, who basically played on scout team last season, credits Groh for his improvement in those areas and in learning the intricacies of the defense.
“The way he explains everything play by play, and then we go over film so much and rewinds it back and forth, you don’t have a choice but to get it in your head,” said Nealy, who described himself as “a deer caught in the headlights” coming into spring practice. “He’s a great teacher. He makes everything so simple for you out there on the field. You’ve got responsibilities and everybody else has a responsibility. That responsibility plays into team power and builds team power.”
Now that he’s up to speed on the basic defense, getting back on the field for fall practice and getting a chance to contribute can’t happen fast enough.
“I feel a whole lot more comfortable,” he said. “Once you know what to do, you can just go out there on the field and play faster. That’s the key for me. I’m not the biggest and I don’t have that much weight. But I have more speed than the offensive lineman. So my speed covers for my weight. It allows me to go around and make plays that maybe a bigger linebacker might not be able to make.”